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The Libertines – The Libertines [Album Review]

March 14, 2012

Can’t Stand Me Now / Last Post on the Bugle / Don’t Be Shy / The Man Who Would Be King / Music When the Lights Go Out / Narcissist / The Ha Ha Wall / Arbeit Macht Frei / Campaign of Hate / What Katie Did / Tomblands / The Saga / Road to Ruin / What Became of the Likely Lads

Up the Bracket, The Libertines’ album lead up to a tremendous promise, and much more than that. You only needed  to once listen to realize there was a bunch of natural musicians at work, spurred on by the drive, the need and necessity to make music. The eagerness and spontaneity was reflected in the sound and also in their own lives, performances and raggedness of the songs: some of the songs nearly literally thrived on energy, almost covering up the fact that that some of the songwriting wasn’t always that good. However, when it did work it really worked, the band managed to channel their vision through the album’s best songs – “Death on the Stairs,” Time for Heroes” and “Boys in the Band,” for instance – the results were nothing short of fantastic, brimming with enough ideas and conviction to make you forget all of it had already done before. But The Libertines, they were never about creating something new. They weren’t ashamed to wear their heart and influences on their sleeves and set out to do the hardest thing: find their own voice in a tradition of several generations. No matter how great some of the material could be, their appeal undoubtedly also benefited from the tensions within the band or, more specifically, the riotous, tragic and well, pathetic story of vocalist Pete Doherty, a careless goofball constantly walking the thin line between casual brilliance and unreliability who’d become a walking drug problem. Between the release of Up the Bracket and the recording of their sophomore album, The Libertines went through more ups and downs than most bands in their entire existence, but I’m not going into that, there are others who can tell you exactly what happened, like the British music and tabloid press who seemed to have there game to ruin them for good. In any case, when the band finally managed to get in the studio again with producer Mick Jones, they threw the troubled times hardly behind them and it became clear that their second album would be about the band’s short but explosive history so far, and especially about the Barat-Doherty relationship. Whereas you could interpret the lyrics in more way than one, it’s hard to neglect the regrets and references to drug use, betrayed trust and doing things against one’s better judgement. Opening song “Can’t Stand Me Now” explicitly deals with drug use (“You shut me up and blamed it on the brown”), “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Last Post on the Bugle” refer to the trials of friendship  (“I’m glad to see we’re still tight, the bonds that tie a man are tight, yet we do what we do”), and closing song “What Became of the Likely Lads” once again captures the awkward bond between the main songwriters (“The blood runs thicker, we’re thick as thieves”).

It’s probably no coincidence that these personal songs are usually the most consistent and memorable tracks on the album, more substantial than the few throwaways that pop up here and there but still fill a purpose. While Up the Bracket‘s rough ready-to-go sound proved to be perfect for the band’s uncontrolled excitement, The Libertines‘ unhinged, almost instable sound serves as the sonic equivalent of the tension within the band and, if possible, even stresses it. The drums are “big” and upfront, but the guitars (one usually playing muted but distorted chords, the other clean & simple recurring patterns) are surprisingly subservient, as if letting the vocals steal the show. Looking (listening) from a distance, Barat and Doherty are both crappy singers, with a lousy timing and an impressive talent for off-key experiments, but they really are good vocalists, delivering their lyrics with a sincerity and smugness that’s exactly would you’d expect (and hope for) from these guys. As such, the vocals can be either hit-or-miss (and a cringe-inducing example of the latter can be heard during the fairly atrocious “Don’t Be Shy”), but fortunately it usually works. Just check out how much of the charm of “Last Post on the Bugle” is derived from the almost breathless vocals. Other highlights that hang together at the seams are the opening track with its totally random (but effective) harmonica break at the end, “The Man Who Would Be King” with its silly la-la-la-las and the closing track, all songs that present you the frayed status of the band. While these four songs seem to contain the heart of the record, there’s more material that makes it worthwhile. In fact, apart from the afore-mentioned “Don’t Be Shy” and the dragging drunk’s lament “Road to Ruin” (the kind only people like Nick Cave or Shane MacGowan get away with), there’s no weak material here. Brief punk tunes “Narcissist,” “Arbeit Macht Frei” and “The Saga” get the tempo up and remind you what a great energetic outfit they once were, even if they’re not ideal for repeated listening. “Music When the Lights Go Out” further romanticises the lifestyle and past of the band, “Campaign of Hate” seems to deal with their nation’s obsession with what’s here today and gone tomorrow, “Tomblands” is a Clash-tribute (that’s how it sounds, at least), and the cutesy “What Katie Did” challenges you to not sing along with those shoop-shoopsThe Libertines is definitely a worthwhile album, but also an immensely frustrating one. It’s not just because it’s the second time around they show you they’re perfectly capable of creating a masterpiece yet don’t actually pull it off, it’s also because the album’s more consistent than the debut, but lacking the peaks that would make it really great. And with a production like this, which I think fits the music perfectly, you have one disadvantage: it only stresses the occasional flaws in the songwriting. Nowadays, it seems unlikely that we’ll get another Libertines album by this line-up, as the main songwriters have gone their separate ways, and that’s a goddamn shame. They were contenders, but could and should have been more than that. It’s always the same with them British nancies.

Note: The album also contains a nice acoustic hidden track that’s extra interesting if you dig audible nose-breathing.

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4 Comments
  1. Really good piece, I’m a huge Libertines fan and I think this is a really good review. i think Up the Bracket just beats this one, although I do really like this one. Have you heard all the B-sides? (sorry if that sounds snooty, just wondering if you had)

    • ah thanks a lot really appreciated! i haven’t actually whats the names and i’ll have to check them out: )

  2. Oh cool, well to be honest mate there’s loads that they didn’t bring out.

    -You’re my waterloo
    -Breck Rd. Lover
    -BangKok
    -Anything but love
    -Sister Sister
    -Smashing
    -Lust of the Libertines
    -Hooray for the 21st century
    -bucketshop
    -skint and minted

    They’re just a few, there’s quite a lot more that deserve listening too.
    How long you been blogging?

    • i’ll make sure to check them out!
      erm not long really i only started it as one of my university projects but i will most likely keep doing it even when the works finished because i do find it quiet enjoyable

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